Gut and Nirvana

What is the connection between the state of your gut and spiritual wisdom?

If you are up-to-speed with developments in medicine you will know that there is substantial evidence now for the health connection between the lower intestine and the brain. This is so well evidenced that some hospitals are performing poo transplants, replacing unhealthy with healthy faeces. The condition of the gut is implicated in so many illnesses. Some of them are obvious, such as inflammatory bowel disease, obesity and cancer. Some are more unexpected such as autism, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other mental health conditions.

Spiritual traditions have known about the gut’s importance for millennia. You can see it expressed in drawings and sculptures of many goddess figures and Buddhas. These images show a contented being with a large but very comfortable belly.

In most traditions of meditation, self-healing and internal martial arts, there is clear guidance to be at ease in our abdomens – to ground, centre and earth our bodies. When we do this, our stomachs relax and sink. There is a shift in our physical and mental states. We become calm in our bodies. Our centre of gravity drops down into our abdomen and is no longer in the chest or head. The feeling is good and comfortable. From this stable and agreeable state we can then meditate and do our spiritual practices more effectively.

The teaching is always the same. Be centred and at ease in your body. In martial arts and classical Japanese medicine there is a single word for this state – hara. To be in hara means to be grounded down in your body and at the same time kind and mindful.
All of this points to a very clear traditional understanding of mind-body-spirit integration.

This connection between the gut and our psychological state is so clearly demonstrated in anxiety and tension. When we are anxious our gut is tense, acidic and its microbes unbalanced. Our heartbeat is not integrated. Our breath is uncomfortable. Our brains are over-stimulated and it is difficult to think straight. We may sweat or shake or feel nauseous.

Most spiritual traditions teach the same quick and efficient way to manage that horrible state. It is very simple: belly breaths. These are soft, slow and calm breaths down into the abdomen. Just two or three soft breaths can work wonders.
These gentle abdominal breaths send reassuring messages through our neuro-endocrinal system. They are a signal that we are in control and consciously self-managing. Get your abdomen to be at ease – and it will ripple through your whole body, calming your heart, breath and brain.

But for me there is more to it than just the physical and mental wellbeing. There is also an important spiritual dimension. This is the crucial concept that the spiritual purpose of being human is to manifest love and compassion, and to become fully mindful and conscious. I am sure that many of my readers align with this philosophy: we are here to embody love.

And one thing is certain. If we are a bag of nerves, dealing with the frantic arousals of survival and anxiety, we cannot fulfil this spiritual purpose. On the contrary, we need a calm foundation, a gut that is at peace.

Our bodies need to be at ease so that we are oases of calm and blessing in a wounded world. So whenever you can and whenever you need, remember the universal strategy taught for millennia across the world: Gentle, slow, soft breaths down into the belly. Just two or three soft breaths can shift the mood. This is good for your health, your spiritual growth and everyone around you.

Happy breathing.

Wrestling Demons and Transforming Paperwork

Wrestling Demons and Transforming Paperwork

This year I was part of a significant breakthrough when Ofqual, the government body, accredited the first UK qualification in spirituality. Yes this is a success but it was a process that took me right out of my comfort zone.

Throughout my life I have been disturbed, nervy and irritable when I have had to order my thinking so as to fit into other people’s boxes. I am okay with simple forms, but I am not okay with anything longer or more complex. Ask me to place a strategic business plan into a sequence of boxes in which you have to distinguish, for example, between ‘aims’, ‘purposes’ and ‘outcomes’ — and I react like a nervous horse being saddled for the first time.  I also have a challenge looking at databases and excel sheets. My vision blurs and I get a headache.

For decades therefore I have avoided this kind of paperwork, but for the Ofqual accreditation I was faced with months of it. It was a recipe for angry depression.

I knew I had to do something about this and self-manage my process. So for the first time in decades, before beginning work, I used ceremony. Before opening my computer I lit a candle, put on background music, meditated and said a prayer asking for help. This soothed me and I was then able to do the form filling without freaking out.

This went on for months as versions of the course application and policies were edited and revised. Slowly, gradually, I became comfortable with the process. After a while I no longer needed the ceremony and could just sit quietly with the paperwork, even enjoying it.


During this period I also had a moment of uncomfortable personal insight.

I have a background in special educational needs and I realised that I had a cognitive challenge related to my learning style. My brain is not wired easily to manage visually boxed information. It’s a very minor form of dyslexia. Plus I have tendency towards impatience.

The insight was uncomfortable because I then looked back at my life and noticed how often I had disrespected people who are comfortable with boxed information, detailed specifications and databases. I had at times, under the guise of humour, even been rude and disruptive.

Now many years on and after reflection I could understand that my negative behaviour was a defence mechanism protecting me from my own low self-esteem because I could not do that kind of work myself. Argh!

I squirmed because I well knew that this kind of behaviour is typical of people with undiagnosed learning difficulties. As well as managing their learning challenge, they also have to manage their psychological backstory and compensatory defensiveness. I knew about all this in others but had not seen it in myself.

Fortunately I could take all of this into my daily practice of meditation, compassionate awareness and healing. And of course I have prayed for forgiveness. I am glad too to share my process openly with you. We all have our histories and challenges. Being open about them can really support us in the highest possible way.


Several moons on I now celebrate the divine economy of it all.

It is a good package.

The Ofqual qualification has landed. An aspect of the new spirituality is grounded in the mainstream. I embrace administrative paperwork. My defensive negative behaviour has been brought into the light and healed.
These are good outcomes. More love, more awareness.

But is there a more general and useful lesson that can be gleaned from my process? I think there is.
Most of us know that whenever we are emotionally reactive we are meeting an opportunity for personal growth. But this growth requires intelligent care. We need to step back, take responsibility and put into action practical strategies for self-management, healing and transformation.

At the same time there is a mysterious and benevolent flow to life, so it is crucial too that we ask for and are open to receiving help. If it healed my wayward attitude to bureaucratic paperwork it can heal anything.


The Spark in the Machine

The Spark in the Machine

Review The Spark in the Machine: How the Science of Acupuncture Explains the Mysteries of Western Medicine
Dan Keown
Publisher: Singing Dragon, March 2014

This is a review of a very exciting and ground-breaking new book which, for me, is a game-changer and which I recommend to you. It will change how you understand the human body!

First, would you join me in a spiritual version of desert island disks? What are your favourite spiritual practices? And if you could only take one practice, which one would it be?

If I were only allowed one particular exercise it would be the Inner Smile. This wonderful meditation exercise supports physical and emotional health, develops compassion, acceptance and love, and also wakes up our higher consciousness.

It is also very easy. It only needs us to do two things that we can do already. The first is to relax. We all do that sometimes. In bed. Sitting at a cafe watching the world go by. On the bus. After a long walk and looking at a lovely view. Just let your body sink into relaxation. It’s a familiar place.

The second element of the Inner Smile is to transmit kind messages through our nervous system and into our bodies. We have that skill too, but usually with others. We all know how to give careful loving kindness to someone who is vulnerable, anxious and in suffering. We do that when we lean down to care for a small child who is hurt; or we cup our hands and hold a baby bird that has fallen from its nest.

When we practise the Inner Smile we relax. Then with the same caring attitude we would give to a hurt little child, we turn our attention within and send loving thoughts and feelings through our own bodies.

This strategy is hugely beneficial as it releases tension and allows a flow of healing agents. It is psychologically positive too because it enables mindful and compassionate self-care, which then spills over to care for others. It also brings us into a healthy relationship with our bodies. Our souls inhabit these wonderful vehicles and through practising the Inner Smile we become fully aware of these ‘temples of the flesh’.

Familiarity and rapport with our own bodies is a crucial key to good health and integrated spiritual development.


Familiarity with our bodies means that we understand how our bodies function. We know how important attitude, food and exercise are. Many of us are also engaged in healthcare and healing, for ourselves and for our clients. It is therefore crucial that we understand human anatomy because this guides how we practise our healthcare.

For a long time I have wanted to read a book that fully unpacks the insights of Chinese medicine in a way that satisfies my curiosity and can also meet the demands of a western medical mind. Dan Keown, a British medical doctor who also has a degree in Chinese medicine, has finally written that book. The Spark in the Machine is sub-titled How the Science of Acupuncture Explains the Mysteries of Western Medicine and it is brilliant. There is a touch of genius about it.

It has substantially transformed my understanding of my own body, healthcare and healing. I absolutely recommend The Spark in the Machine to you if you have the slightest interest in health and healing. In my opinion it is a significant breakthrough book and may come to be regarded as a classic.

It is beautifully written with a warm humour and a rigorous scientific approach. It provides a wonderful, holistic and in-depth description of how classical Chinese and modern western medical approaches can merge.

With great care and intelligence Dan Keown explains how the body’s natural electricity, its qi, flows through, around and organises the body. He describes how the body and its organs emerge and develop from a single dividing cell, and the miraculous ways in which it connects and interconnects.

As a result of reading this book when I practise the Inner Smile my whole experience has changed. I have a far better understanding of how the thoughts and feelings of my mind and heart are generating a flow of electricity and benevolent qi through the fascia (like cellophane or cling-film) beneath the skin, around and into the tissues and organs. I am entranced by the thought of my lungs being an upside-down tree. I absolutely sense the three levels of my body as being similar to a garden: the lower compost level of my abdomen, liver, kidneys and intestines; the middle level of soil of my lungs and heart; and the flowering plant at the top in my head, mouth, eyes, ears and brain.

I am grateful for the knowledge and insights.

One of the gifts of our age is the continuing integration of classical wisdom and modern science. What is constant however is the miraculous wonder of nature, our bodies and the cosmos.

The Spark in the Machine is available from Cygnus Books here

Post-Surgery Pain Reduced by Prayer

An interesting research paper was recently published in Iran.  It described an experiment conducted with 160 Muslim women who had recently undergone C-section under spinal anaesthesia.

Half of the group listened to 20 minutes of a recited prayer meditation using headphones. The other half also wore headphones but there was no sound.

Rendered into English phonetics the prayer was Ya man esmoho davaa va zekroho shafa, Allahomma salle ala mohammad va ale mohammad.  (No translation was given in the paper’s abstracts and if any reader knows the translation, I would be grateful if you would post it here on this blog. See below.)

Pain intensity was assessed before, during and after the prayer meditation. The results indicated no differences in pain level during or immediately after the prayer meditation.

However, for the women who had listened to the prayer the pain was significantly reduced a few hours afterwards.

This is good news.


I wanted to share this with you for a couple of reasons.

First I think it is an engaging piece of research and reassuring to those of us who are interested in healing and science.

Second it is good to break down stereotypes.

This research took place in Iran, was published in an Iranian academic journal and conducted with Muslim women. This transforms so many prejudiced perceptions that we might have.

It is good in our fractured world to acknowledge the profound heritage of arts, culture and science in Iran/Persia. The photo by Mohammed Ganji is of the pink mosque in Shiraz.


Of course, being quizzical, it may not have been the power of the prayer itself that was beneficial. Perhaps it was the cadence, repetition and tone that had the benevolent effect. But that too is engaging and important.


The reference for the research is: Beiranvand S, Noaparast M, Eslamizade N, Saeedikia S (2014). The effects of religion and spirituality on post-operative pain, hemodynamic functioning and anxiety after cesarean section. Acta Medica Iranica 52(12):909-915
My attention was drawn to it by the Newsletter of the Duke University Center for Spirituality, Theology & Health. To receive their Newsletter click on the small orange button on the bottom left hand corner of their website home page

Ho’oponopono – Clarifying the Forgiveness Prayer

Many of my friends and colleagues are using the ancient Polynesian healing and forgiveness prayer known as Ho’oponopono.

In my opinion many of the recent versions are tending to miss the point and the true power of the prayer. So I would like to clarify my interpretation of it.

Its origins are in the village and clan communities of ancient Polynesian culture. 

In these communities no one was considered an isolated individual. Every single person was a member of the interdependent community and bloodline. Every single person in some way or another represented their clan/family/lineage/village.

So If one single person behaved criminally then the whole family, clan and village felt they were responsible for that behaviour. A criminal action belonged to and was the responsibility of the whole community.

If there was a wrongdoing therefore the whole family and village would come out to take responsibility for it, to redress it and to heal it.

In this spirit, the Ho’oponopono Prayer was communicated by the whole village and it was addressed to the spirits, to the gods, goddesses, the ultimate Spirit and Gaia.

The first line addressed to Spirit: We are responsible.

The second line addressed to Spirit is: We are sorry.

The third line addressed to Spirit is: Please forgive us.

Those three lines are the heart of the prayer as the community took full responsibility for one individual’s aberrant actions. It was in taking responsibility – as an adult who understands the interdependence of all life and the absolute need to take responsibility – that the prayer finds its fundamental power.

The two supplementary lines, the fourth and fifth, represent general truths and attitudes.
There is only Love.
Thank you.

So the whole prayer, according to this interpretation, when spoken by a single individual actually runs: (Always addressed to Spirit)

I am responsible for this. This is my responsibility
I am sorry
Forgive me
There is only Love
Thank you

Of course in essence the actual words do not matter as long as the sentiment is sincere and real. I write this only because I have witnessed a tendency for modern people to misunderstand and even avoid the element of responsibility which is the heart and soul and efficacy of the prayer  and also its miraculous power of grace. It is the polar opposite of denial. It is also at the core of the Christian action of turning the other cheek and Buddhist compassion.

I was originally introduced to Ho’oponopono by Dr Ihaleakala Hew Len in an evening talk in Glastonbury two decades ago.

I use the prayer very often.

Whole Body Listening

‘The first three sessions were in complete silence. We didn’t say a thing.’

My colleague, a psychotherapist and a Spiritual Companion, was talking about her work in a psychiatric ward with a young person who had been badly traumatised.

‘The sessions were completely silent?’ I asked.

‘Yes. This young person froze the moment that any older person walked into the room. So I kept quiet and waited.’

‘Did you ever speak?’

‘Yes finally in the fourth session,’ my friend replied. ‘I could feel the tension in the room relaxing and the atmosphere changed. The first words I said to the young person were: Can you feel the change in atmosphere in the room?’

‘And what happened?’ I queried.

‘My patient nodded that she felt it. That was the beginning of the conversation which helped lead to recovery.’

‘And what were you doing when you were silent in those first sessions?’ I asked.

‘I was guiding my breath to be calm. I prayed for healing. I opened my heart. I wanted to be a reassuring presence.’

This conversation moved me. I was touched that deep in our health system, in an inner city psychiatric ward, in the middle of our goal-driven and intense world, there was the space for this composed and wise approach. In old-fashioned language this used to be called ‘good bedside manner.’ In spirituality it might be called ‘co-presence’. In therapy or early years schooling ‘whole body listening.’


It was particularly relevant to me because in Spiritual Companions we teach listening skills and I was becoming increasingly unclear about how best to do this. At the same time I was affected by another colleague who said that he disliked people who listened ‘professionally.’

‘It’s the way that they lean into me,’ he said, ‘their faces slightly screwed up and their intense focus. It feels as if they are waiting for me to share a particular type of personal information and they will not back off until they hear what they want to hear. It’s intrusive and pushy. It shuts me up. I want to escape.’

I knew exactly what he meant. I had been on the receiving end. I even did it myself when I was younger, waiting for a client to disclose their emotions and feelings before I relaxed and gave them approval for being a ‘good’ client. In fact I was just gratifying my egoistic need to prove that I was a good helper.

That is definitely not true listening or helping. In fact, to name it at its worst, it is a subtle abuse of power over someone who is vulnerable.

So it was beautiful to hear my colleague talking about the three sessions of complete silence in which trust and safety slowly grew.

This is similar to Gerda Boyesen’s wonderful story, which I often tell, about when she came over from Norway to London.

She was the founder of Biodynamic Psychology and there were many people who wanted to be her clients. She made appointments to see them, but found that she was frustrating them with her bad understanding of English, often asking them to repeat what they had just said. So she decided just to keep quiet, to sink deep into her body, be a reassuring presence and occasionally make comforting noises to show she was listening. Without any of her usual therapeutic questioning, but just her warm presence, her clients started to open about themselves faster than she had ever previously experienced.

Silence and a warm reassuring presence did more than all her expert professional enquiry.


How then can we best teach these deeper listening skills? It might seem very simple. Be quiet. Be calm. Be relaxed in your body. Simultaneously be attentive and fully present to your companion.

But there is a problem here. The moment that you are asked to be attentive you may experience an arousal, a very mammalian response based in survival instincts. Instead of becoming calm, the call to be attentive may trigger you into a hyper-vigilance as if you were on the hunt or being hunted. Be alert or die!

This style of aroused and forced listening is obviously not what we want. If we listen in this hyped up state, then we transmit a threatening message to our companion. Our body language and ambience are anxious. The adrenalin in our sweat even sours our aroma.

It is obvious, isn’t it? That kind of intense listening is bad practice. Its actually frightening for people. There is a threat! Is this a hunt? Am I the hunted?

But there is this other kind of highly attentive listening which is deeply relaxed and reassuring. I want to suggest to you that you have probably already learnt it in the classroom of life. But perhaps you have not yet noticed that you learnt it.

Here for example are two widespread circumstances where you have most likely listened calmly and with full awareness.

The first is when you were with a friend, a family member or a loved one who was ill or in pain – and you just sat patiently with them. Your companion may have been asleep or restless or chattering. You may perhaps have sat for hours or days, aware of their breathing, their movements and their needs. You have done that, haven’t you? You also respected their space and if they wanted to be left alone you withdrew. Listening, fully aware, relaxed, heart open. No arousal or hyper-vigilance, but completely present, connected.

The second is when you have been in nature. Surely you have had quiet times in nature, relaxed, aware of the noises, the aromas, the touch of breeze against your skin, noticing everything, but calm, connected and at ease.

Those two situations – sitting with someone who is ill and being quiet in nature – contain the body language, the ambience and the feeling of true full-body listening and co-presence. You can already do it. And if you have done it once in one kind of situation, you can do it again in another.

But this skill does not come with a diploma or a stethoscope, does it?

It comes from something healthy and normal in human nature – our natural inclination and ability to be empathic, connected and benevolent, a healing presence and a force for good.